When the current but soon-to-be former president, Donald Trump, issued a proclamation in late October, designating November as National Native American Heritage Month, I admittedly questioned both his motives and sincerity.
After all, during his four-year occupancy of the White House, he’s rarely, if ever, utilized his bully pulpit to advance the cause of those historically marginalized and oppressed in America. Nonetheless, as one who has long embraced with pride a heritage that includes three races — Black, white and Native American — I decided to dig deeper into the president’s rhetoric. I decided to study the contemporary plight of the Native American without all the “inaccuracies” I’d learned in school.
In the Trump administration’s invitation to honor our nation’s indigenous peoples’ history, we are urged to “celebrate the culture and heritage of these remarkable Americans who deeply enrich the quality and character of our nation.”
“We get to celebrate Indian Country with its wonderful diversity of American Indian [AI] and Alaska Native [AN] cultures and peoples, while remembering and honoring our veterans who have sacrificed so much to defend our nation. We celebrate AI/AN heritage through the theme ‘Resilient and Enduring: We Are Native People,’ the proclamation said.
Sounds admirable but further examination of the facts points to a country whose ruling people have been anything but a brother, sister or friend to Native Americans — both those who whites first encountered upon their well-documented landing on Plymouth Rock to their surviving offspring today.
AIs and ANs die at higher rates than other Americans in many categories, including chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, diabetes mellitus, unintentional injuries, assault/homicide, intentional self-harm/suicide and chronic lower respiratory diseases — their life expectancy is 4.4 years less than the nation’s all-races population.
The Indian Health Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides care to over 2.2 million Native Americans across the U.S., fulfilling treaty responsibilities to provide health care for members of more than 560 recognized tribes. But Congress has consistently underfunded the agency, forcing hospital administrators to limit the services offered.
“We are the sickest racial, ethnic population in the U.S.,” said Irene Vernon, a professor at Colorado State University who specializes in Native American health.
Native communities suffer more of the usual predictors of poor health, such as poverty, unemployment and a steep high school dropout rate. There’s also a heavy history: the removal of Native Americans from their lands, and the boarding school movement, when many Native children were separated from their families, renamed, stripped of their language and often abused.
“These traumatic impacts — loss of land, loss of community, loss of family, warfare — have been passed on from generation to generation,” Vernon said.
As she summarized, “It’s helplessness.”
Closing my eyes for a moment, the road traveled by Native Americans and the tragic outcomes sound hauntingly familiar to the history of America’s Blacks. Both people have faced over 200 years of oppression and trauma which have been passed down to each generation.
With the false fig leaf of brotherhood, we were promised that by assimilating into American culture — “white culture” — we would be given access to America’s great “apple pie.” We would be treated equally. Yet, still today, an inordinate number of white supremacists and far-right groups confirm that they will never step down from their pedestals of privilege — not willingly — not without a fight.
But the “browning of America” has already taken place — we’re here and we’re here to stay.
As I reflected upon the many “trails of tears” which my Native American ancestors unwillingly and painfully traveled — paths punctuated with a preponderance of purposely engineered barriers, roadblocks and dead-end streets — I solemnly offered my thanks. I paused to praise them for the sacrifices they made on behalf of those like me who would one day stand upon their shoulders.
The pieces that make up the whole me are more complex than my skin color and presumed ethnicity might suggest. But then, Americans have been a complex set of people since declaring independence and their freedom from the British government in 1776. Why should my story be any less complex?
I am the progeny of a half-white, blond, blue-eyed grandfather — the offspring of a plantation owner who bedded one of his slaves. I am the grandchild of a God-fearing Black woman who survived being abandoned on the streets of Baltimore at the age of 10, later purchasing two homes for her family. I am the grandchild of a Blackfoot woman who left the bayous of Louisiana to follow her husband to rural Alabama. And I am the grandson of a half-breed from Charles City, Va. whose father would be forced to leave his Chickahominy ancestors and family because he had the audacity to fall in love with and marry a Black woman.
Yes, the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes spoke words of prophecy in his reflective poem, “I, Too.”
Indeed, brother Langston — “I, too, sing America.”